14 tips — How you can avoid and treat nasty bug bites

A lot of us love hot weather. Unfortunately, pesky bugs like mosquitoes and ticks also love hot weather — and nibbling on people they can get close to. Their bites can result in itching, but bugs can also carry illnesses they can pass on to you.

In our part of the Upper Midwest, mosquitoes can carry and transmit diseases such as:

  • West Nile virus
  • La Crosse encephalitis
  • Powassan virus

Ticks can spread:

  • Lyme disease
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever


What can we do about these bugs and their bites? 

Mosquitoes

Why do mosquito bites itch? It’s because of our body’s immune system.

When mosquitoes bite, they’re not eating. They’re actually drawing blood from you to get an amino acid called isoleucine. They use this to help them produce more eggs than they could otherwise. (It’s the female that bites and causes the itching.)

The reality is, the mosquito would be better off biting a critter like a buffalo. They have more isoleucine in their blood. But as you look around your neighborhood, you’ll likely notice more people than buffalo, so you’re the feature on the mosquito’s menu.

Once the mosquito lands on your skin, it will use its feeding stylets to pierce your skin and find a blood vessel. To keep the blood flowing, the mosquito will inject you with specialized saliva that keeps your blood from clotting (an anticoagulant).

People who itch after a mosquito bite are having an allergic reaction to the anticoagulant in the saliva. When you get itchy, your immune system is releasing histamines to respond to your allergic reaction. And, there it is — an itchy red spot.

 

Preventing mosquito bites

Here are some steps you can take to reduce mosquitoes’ nuisance around your family. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water, so dump water out of things in your yard that can catch and hold water. Turn them upside down if you can. Make sure water doesn’t stand in flowerpots.

Change water in kiddy pools at least once a week.

Since mosquitoes are most active around dawn and dusk, those are good times to:

  • Cover skin with long pants, long sleeves and socks. If weather cooperates, a hat, light scarf and gloves can also help shield you from the bugs. Mosquitoes can bite through thin clothing, so choose your clothing accordingly.
  • Use a spray or lotion insect repellent that has 20 to 30 percent DEET. You could also try a repellent with 20 to 30 percent picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR353. If you use a spray, you can spray it on your clothes and skin. To apply to the face, spray on your hands and then carefully rub it on the face. Follow the directions for all repellants you use. Take note of age restrictions since repellents can be harmful for babies.

Using a sunscreen outside is important, so use it along with repellent. Since you should reapply sunscreen more often than insect repellent, we suggest using separate sunscreen and repellent. Apply sunscreen first, then apply your insect repellent.

When you’re done outside, wash repellent off with soap and water.

 

Treating a mosquito bite

If you end up with a bite, don’t scratch it. If you break the skin by scratching, an infection can develop. Instead:

  • Wash the bite and apply a cold compress or ice pack. A mild corticosteroid cream (such as a hydrocortisone cream) or calamine lotion can be applied to reduce inflammation and itching.
  • If there are multiple bites over a larger area, consider taking an over-the-counter antihistamine tablet, following the directions. Choose a non-sedating antihistamine if you’re using it during the day.

An antibacterial is not needed for typical insect bites. If an infection develops, check with your health care provider.

 

Ticks

While mosquitoes don’t use your blood for nourishment, ticks do. You can reduce your chances of being the tick’s next meal by taking some precautions, especially when in the tick’s natural habitat — woods, bushes and high grasses. To protect your family:

  • Wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants and socks. As with mosquitoes, a hat, scarf and gloves add to your protection.
  • Use a repellent with permethrin only on your clothes and shoes. If you’re camping, spray your gear, too. DO NOT use permethrin on your skin. Instead use an insect repellent as we described above with DEET or a comparable product. Follow label directions.
  • When you go back inside, check for ticks. Check all over the bodies of everyone who has been outside. Pay special attention to:

  • o Underarms
    o In and around the ears
    o Behind the knees and in the groin (crotch)
    o Around the waist
    o Inside the belly button
    o In and around hair
     
  • Check pets that have been outside or near you when you came in. Ticks can ride around on pets and jump to the family, so check carefully.
  • Take a shower within two hours of going in. Showering before too much time goes by allows you to remove ticks before they can latch on too tight.
  • To keep ticks away from your home, clear bushes, tall grasses and leaves from around your home. Mow often. If you have woods near your home, use wood chips or stones as a buffer between your patio and play equipment and tick habitat.

 

What to do if you have a tick

We’ll start by dispelling some old myths. DO NOT use a hot match, petroleum jelly or fingernail polish to remove the tick. Here’s what you should do:

  • Use tweezers to remove the tick as soon as you can. Take hold of the tick as near its head as you can.
  • Gently pull the entire tick straight out. Avoid crushing or twisting the tick. If part of the tick remains in the skin, call your health care professional for guidance.
  • Wash the bite and your hands with soap and water.
  • Put rubbing alcohol on the bite.

 

After a bug bite, if you or a family member gets sick or sees a rash or swelling that doesn’t go away after a day or two, see your health care professional. It will be helpful for your provider if you can explain where and when you think the bite happened and what may have bitten you.

Meet the Author

Lisa K. Seefeld, MD, specializes in pediatrics at Aurora Health Center in West Bend, WI.  

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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